Mr Leslie Odom Jr Is Not Throwing Away His Shot
Mr Leslie Odom Jr will always remember his first unsettling famous person in the front row. It was in the heady days of Hamilton, before the musical had graduated to Broadway but was, even back in 2015, the hottest ticket in town.
The trouble was, once Mr Odom Jr – who played villainous Mr Aaron Burr opposite Mr Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Mr Alexander Hamilton for four years – saw legendary rapper Busta Rhymes in the audience, he couldn’t, well, un-see him.
“Busta’s not an inconspicuous guy. It’s a presence,” he laughs, when we chat over Zoom on a windy day in Los Angeles. It’s finally sweater weather in sunny California and Mr Odom Jr looks cosy but cool in bright-pink cashmere at the home where he’s quarantining with his pregnant actress wife, Ms Nicolette Robinson, and their three-year-old daughter, Lucille.
“I have been a fan of Busta for over half my life. Mandy Patinkin was in the fourth row that night and Salman Rushdie was also there. That’s how crazy it was.”
Backstage, Mr Odom Jr had to give himself a talking to. “I thought to myself, ‘Busta Rhymes has entertained me for countless hours of my life and now I have one night to give him something back. One night to say thank you for all the inspiration and entertainment he has given me.’”
It’s quite an insight into the unseen pressures on a jobbing musical actor performing to sell-out audiences, night after night. It’s also an experience – six years and two career-defining awards (a Tony for Best Actor In A Musical and a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album in 2016) later – that is fast becoming a distant memory.
“‘Oh, you’re going to be the next Denzel or the next Wesley Snipes.’ And while I’m flattered by any comparison… I am not them”
These days, Mr Odom Jr is less likely to get starstruck – he’s too busy becoming a star himself. At least it’s looking that way with the release of One Night In Miami, a fictionalised account of a 1964 meeting between Messrs Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay before he became Muhammad Ali. Based on a play by Mr Kemp Powers, the film is the directorial debut of the actor Ms Regina King and is already the subject of Oscar buzz. In fact, the day before this piece was published, Mr Odom Jr received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the role. The film itself has garnered several other nominations, including one for Ms King’s direction.
The film, in which Mr Odom Jr plays soul singer Mr Sam Cooke, is the perfect vehicle for a musical-theatre star making his transition into bona fide Hollywood actor. In fact, having merely dipped his toes into the movie business with minor roles in Murder On The Orient Express (2017), Only (2019) and Harriet (2019) previously, one might call a lead role (in an ensemble cast that includes Mr Kingsley Ben-Adir, Mr Eli Goree and Mr Aldis Hodge) a no-brainer. But for Mr Odom Jr, it wasn’t that simple: he worried portraying a singer would invite the sort of typecasting he was determined to avoid.
“People want to rush to put you in a box,” explains the 39-year-old, who cut his teeth in TV in the 2000s (more on that later). “Starting out in the song and dance world, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re just like Sammy Davis Jr or Ben Vereen’. In the acting world, it’s, ‘Oh, you’re going to be the next Denzel or the next Wesley Snipes.’ And while I’m flattered by any comparison, it’s also reductive. As much as I love Sammy or Ben, I am not them. There are many ways I fall short trying to be these other guys.
“Hamilton was the first time people had context of what I do specifically. It was the first time I felt really allowed to be the best version of myself, and not in comparison to anyone else. For the first time, people weren’t calling me and asking me to be someone else. I finally have a little bit of daylight between me and the greats and now I’m going to rush and go [and play one]?”
But he came around. “When I took a deeper look at what Kemp was trying to do, I knew it was beyond impersonation. It’s historical fiction. We know they were all in that room together, but we don’t know what happened in the room. What Kemp wanted to do was show a side to all these men that they would not have shown [outside]. The opportunity to have a private conversation – publicly – was daring and ballsy.”
The imagined conversation centres around the American civil rights movement: they address, among other things, whether black entertainers should speak out about racism, if money and fame reward enough for humiliation. After a year of loud, painful and public social reckoning, it feels more pertinent and urgent than ever.
Messrs Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Eli Goree and Leslie Odom Jr in One Night In Miami (2020). Photograph by Ms Patti Perret, courtesy of Amazon Prime
“This was daring because this is a conversation that we don’t have [publicly]. This is a conversation I have borne witness to my whole life. I watched adults have conversations like this and when I became an adult, I started to have conversations like this,” he says, before taking such a long, thoughtful pause that I wonder if our connection has cut out.
“I’ll be vulnerable with you,” he continues. “As black people, there’s a fair amount that we hide publicly in an effort to be successful and to be accepted, because we don’t need another strike, we don’t need another demerit. My parents did it; my grandparents did it.
“After the 2016 election, it felt like there was a conversation happening in this country that I was not part of. There was a movement happening of people who were angry and disgruntled and decided to make a decision as a collective to do something rash that we thought was unthinkable. But it was their true feelings. And it felt like our skin had been ripped off.”
In person, Mr Odom Jr is every bit as intense as he is on stage. He’s not one for banter, he’s too focused and too introspective; answering questions with lengthy, philosophical responses rather than snappy anecdotes. More than once, he refers to the “spiritual work” he does on himself. “There are different seasons in my life,” he offers by way of explanation. “I’m not always working on the same thing.”
In life, or work, it appears – if his exceptionally varied career is anything to go by. It may come as no surprise that Mr Odom Jr even published a self-help memoir, Failing Up: How To Take Risks, Aim Higher And Never Stop Learning, in 2018.
The truth is, Mr Odom Jr never set out to be a film star. Before Hamilton, he got his big break as a 17-year-old in the Broadway production of the critically acclaimed Rent and went on to record four solo jazz albums (the most recent, a Christmas album, was released last year). Film, on the other hand, was a harder mountain to climb.
“Hamilton was the reason I got into the business. It not only made me a better artist, but a better friend, citizen and partner, because I was so happy”
“It absolutely felt out of reach and because of that it wasn’t really a goal,” he admits. “When I first started in the business, there were still hard lines drawn around whether you were considered a TV actor, a theatre actor or a film actor. Film actors were not doing television. In the early 2000s, that was not really a thing. And I was considered a TV actor.”
Brought up in Philadelphia by parents who “were more interested in teaching me how to think, rather than what to think”, Mr Odom Jr attended a performing arts school and sang in the church choir before making his teenage Broadway debut. “I love that Philadelphia was centre stage at the end of this election,” he quips, going off on a tangent. “I’ve never been prouder of my city.”
In 2003, he moved to Los Angeles to try and catch a break, booking parts in TV shows such as CSI and Law & Order. “I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be on TV,” he recalls. “I thought when I was watching The Cosby Show that I was watching a family. It didn’t occur to me that you would audition to be in the family.”
Mr Odom Jr had just accepted the lead role in a promising new TV show, State Of Affairs, in 2013 when the opportunity to star in a then-off-Broadway production of Hamilton turned his head. It was a leap of faith that we now know paid off. But not everybody saw it like that. “I needed the money and… I was turning down half a million dollars to do an off-Broadway show,” he admits.
So, how did he know he’d made the right decision? The answer, as we might have predicted, is a spiritual one. “The spiritual work I was faced with, was, ‘Who are you?’ I believed myself to be someone who was about art and craft and all those noble things I’d learnt in drama school, but here I was faced with real decisions,” he says.
“Whatever your ambition is, you have to know what you’re in it for. Whether it’s dough, chicks, fame or power – whatever the thing is, know what it is so that you don’t miss it when it comes. What I knew about Hamilton was that it was the reason I got into the business. It not only made me a better artist, but a better friend, citizen and partner, because I was so happy.”
This year, Mr Odom Jr is set to appear in The Sopranos’ prequel The Many Saints Of Newark as well as continuing to release and perform music. “When I stepped off the Hamilton stage and people asked me, ‘What’s your dream role?’ I was speechless because I was like, ‘I just played it,’” he says. “I thought, ‘I want to do everything that no one would allow me to do before Hamilton.’”
I suggest he’s had a pretty good stab at that so far, but he wouldn’t say such a thing out loud, it’s not his style. Because, while he might be a triple threat on paper, something tells me that deep down, he’s still starstruck, waiting patiently in the wings – and working on himself, of course.
“It took me 15 years to find my way onto Hamilton and I’m so grateful the show didn’t find me a moment too soon because I would not have been ready. So, I’m going to give myself at least 15 years of pursuing film before I start expecting anything of myself,” he says. “One Night In Miami feels like, ‘OK, let’s get started.’”
One Night In Miami is out now (Amazon Prime)
Illustrations by Ms Oriana Fenwick